Julia Haller, Untitled, 2020, acrylic on canvas, 55 1⁄8 × 39 3⁄4".

Julia Haller, Untitled, 2020, acrylic on canvas, 55 1⁄8 × 39 3⁄4".

Julia Haller

Just when it seemed that we would never emerge from the widespread mild depression caused by two months of lockdown, Julia Haller jolted us awake with her exhibition “Knights.” At long last, a light at the end of the digi-tunnel! The choice of artist for Meyer Kainer’s reopening sent a clear signal: The special qualities of Haller’s work demand a live encounter, which nothing can replace. How else would we feel the energy and rhythm of a hanging or the reverberations of a particular piece, its feedback sound?

“Knights” was the artist’s third solo show at the Viennese gallery. The inception of the works she presented there in 2014 lay in the act of drawing with her left and right hands at the same time; these scrawls were engraved into nonporous Corian panels with a CNC milling machine before the application of paint and iron-oxide pigment. Her second show, in 2017, featured startling samples of yet another innovative transfer process: motifs—shrubs, palms, bare trees on islands—drawn on a computer and printed directly on canvases primed with acrylic, gesso, or emulsion paint, yielding dazzlingly glossy surfaces.

“The painted picture is no longer credible,” claims the fictional protagonist of a text Haller wrote in place of an artist’s statement in 2012. In the years since, the erstwhile student of Heimo Zobernig, under whom she studied “textual sculpture” at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, has since dedicated herself to the production of hieratic, nonconformist, risky, and exceptionally alluring works in which painting undergoes a metamorphosis: The medium is in revolt, and its sculptural dimension takes over, revealing intangible contents, the absent, the discordant. Her work is not painting, it’s metapainting.

In this exhibition, Haller pressed the reset button with a black monochrome right by the entrance and then, as if in a game of carom billiards, played a series of bank shots, aiming for the edges, seizing an opening, sliding along the walls, turning a corner, occupying a frame. She responded to earlier exhibitions at the gallery—paintings were hung on the wall installed for the preceding show, by Anne Speier, and the orange wall paint in one gallery was familiar from its use by Ulrike Müller in 2019—putting them to use as repoussoirs and resonators for her works.

The nine unprimed canvases in Haller’s show—all Untitled, acrylic on canvas, 2020, the checklist tersely noted—were the scenes of a shift of register: from generously spaced fields of white, pink, yellow, or a bold brownish orange to meandering lines or fragments of lines; from a swarming mass of doodles to squiggles, graffiti, and cartoons. The interest was in the gesture and in the trace. Referential meaning and even intentionality are dispensable. So is classical compositional organization. What counts is weightlessness, suspense. As Bowie phrased it, channeling his Major Tom: “I’m floating in a most peculiar way!”

With a certain mysterious detachment, Haller tries to prevent us from figuring out her creative logic. “Knights” needed no Texte zur Kunst. A xeroxed leaflet sufficed. It consisted of eight repetitions of the phrase “I’m trying to write a sentence with a mouse,” borrowed from a text by artist Christoph Bruckner. Art and language were here reduced to a scrawl, contesting the authority and professorial presumption of experts. And yet Haller does not hesitate to insert allusions to canonical works of art into her work: The black square inevitably evokes Malevich. But these are not quotations, as the gallery’s Christian Meyer assured me, nor statements, but rather symptoms. And, as they say, thou shalt love thy symptoms as thyself.

Translated from German by Gerrit Jackson.